Starting in preschool, Moffat County School District students are introduced to three puppet characters, which will pop into their classrooms once a week until the student graduates to Craig Middle School.
At Sunset Elementary School, the three puppets reside in counselor Jackie Schnellinger’s office when they’re not visiting various classrooms.
“This is Impulsive Puppy,” Schnellinger said, waving the arms of a stuffed dog whose tongue lolled to the side. “He is kind of off the wall, and he does stuff without thinking. We ask the students, ‘Now, is that something Impulsive Puppy would do?’”
The puppets are part of a program called Second Step, which teaches elementary school students about impulse control and empathy, skills that school officials said could help stave off bullying behavior at a later age.
“I think there is something very natural about aggression and having tendencies to act out,” Schnellinger said. “We’re not telling kids never to be angry but instead building better skills to be able to make the right choices when they’re angry.”
She said Impulsive Puppy can be worked into many discussions in the classroom as children learn to understand and identify their own impulsive behavior.
The other two puppets are named Calm Down Bunny and Slow Down Snail, characters that teach patience, thoughtfulness and understanding in stressful or exciting situations.
“Unit one is on empathy,” she said. “Around ages four and five, kids begin to see themselves as separate from other people. They are starting to realize the universe is not really centered around them.
“Teaching empathy helps children develop a sense of how others feel.”
As they develop these senses and emotions, the stress of social development can often lead to conflict or acting out.
Second Step is designed to help children understand these feelings and give them the cognitive tools to use in making decisions about how to react.
However normal it is for children to act out, Schnellinger said children are not inherently ill-behaved.
On the contrary, she said, she sees in her students the natural ability to be kind and care about one another.
She recalled a time when a fourth-grader had an emotional breakdown in class.
While Schnellinger sat by her, another student walked up, unprompted, and patted the girl on the back, telling her it was all going to be all right.
Still, she said she is aware that bullying occurs in the district, beginning with teasing in the younger grade levels and sometimes escalating to violence in middle school.
The main issue is getting kids to talk about it, she said.
“Bullying is something that’s scary for adults,” she said. ‘There is so much shame attached to it, and kids won’t talk.”
She said the best answer is early intervention and parental involvement, citing opportunities such as an upcoming parenting class called the Incredible Years Step as ways of staying engaged in a child’s social development. The class takes place at 5 p.m. every Tuesday at Sunset Elementary.
“As adults, I think we all remember a time when our peers were unkind to us,” Schnellinger said. “But we want to help kids learn thinking skills, basically understanding that ‘People will be mean to me, but I have control over myself.’”
Although the impulse control aspect of the program teaches children to control their anger and think before they act, Schnellinger said there is no magic bullet for ending bullying completely.
“Will there always be bullying?” she said. “Probably. But will it always be tolerated? No. We may not be able to stop it, but we can make strong efforts not to tolerate it.
“We just really hope the relationships we develop with students can have a lasting effect.”